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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
» Reading Guide
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Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa
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Reading Guide
1.  Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth," short story, 1898
    Charles W. Chesnutt

From slavery to freedom, and through freedom to . . . selfhood. As formidable a transition, perhaps, as creating a post-slavery livelihood. Where do I fit in the white world? in the black world? What past do I claim? What future can I envision? What legacy do I pass to my children? How do I introduce myself to my self? All within the sphere of another challenge—how do I stay safe in a hostile society that denies my personhood?

To pursue these questions, we turn again to Charles Chesnutt. The son of free blacks and a teacher of emancipated slaves, Chesnutt strove in his fiction to promote whites' respect for African Americans and the profound challenges they faced after emancipation. In "The Wife of His Youth," he presents Mr. Ryder, a man of "mixed blood" born free in Missouri but apprenticed to a plantation owner after becoming orphaned. Twenty-five years later he is a member of the northern black elite. Self-taught and a natural leader, he justifiably prides himself on his hard-won status. And as a "mulatto," he feels driven to promote high standards of decorum among his acquaintances. The motto "Self-preservation is the first law of nature" defines his identity. And then one day his past arrives at his doorstep. Does he acknowledge his past? What consequences will he face if he does, and if he does not? How does he decide to decide? A must-read for this section. 10 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. What predicaments of post-emancipation life are presented in the story?
  2. What is the unique predicament of those of "mixed blood"?
  3. What stratifications have evolved in African American society by the 1890s, as portrayed in this story?
  4. How do the Blue Veins construct the past in order to accept former slaves into their ranks? What is the "shadow hanging over them"?
  5. Characterize the identities that Mr. Ryder and 'Liza Jane have created for themselves. What is gained and lost in their choices?
  6. Is Mr. Ryder free of "race prejudice"?
  7. Judge Mr. Ryder's response to his ethical dilemma. Does he make his decision before the ball or after presenting his dilemma to the Blue Veins? What will he do after the ball, in your opinion?
  8. Relate Mr. Ryder's belief that "Self-preservation is the first law of nature" to the dilemma and outcome of this story. Does Chesnutt sympathize with his character, Mr. Ryder?
  9. Why does Chesnutt omit white society's view of the Blue Veins from this story?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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